Healing herbs and plants in Old World Ireland

dandelion field 660

Dandelions are known throughout the world’s temperate climes for their tenacity, but also for the flavor they give to our teas and salads. In my books, they’re called “sun-petals,” because the French word dandelion hadn’t yet evolved.

From the time she was 16, starting in a series of my books under a different pen name, the redheaded Caylith began to study the properties of plants. Under the guidance of her marvelous grandfather, she found that somehow the plants had an affinity for her, rather than the other way around!

lily white 363

Caylith’s road lilies are similar to this white lily grass, Ornithogalum, in itheir delicate flowers, leafless stems and bulbous roots. The word “road lily”–indeed the plant itself– is my invention.

From the road lilies that give her uncommon strength, to the “sun-petal” tea and chicory that she and the other characters drink daily, all the Caylith books—from the early fantasies to the later romances— are full of plants, used for preternatural magical abilities, for food, for refreshing beverages, and of course for purposes of healing.

Notice how many of the plants in this article are in the family compositae, those with composite, “daisy-like” flowers.

As the author, I gave healing properties to plants both fictional and real. “Road lilies” are pure fiction. And yet, almost two years after making up those little beauties from  my imagination, I found that the white lily grass called Ornithogalum almost exactly fits my idea of Caylith’s beloved road lily! They resemble the extremely hardy “rain lilies” in my central Texas yard. Just like Caylith’s plants, whose leafless stems favor the harsh soils in the cracks along the old Roman roads, their bulbine roots find deep cracks and are difficult to bring up completely without using a shovel and plenty of elbow grease.

dandelion 242

The ubiquitous dandelion–what would mankind have done without her? This lovely weed has one of the longest taproots I’ve ever tried to extract!

I invented the name “Sun-petals” for dandelions, a word that would not have evolved for several hundred more years, for it was adapted from the French words dent de lion or “lion’s teeth.”

In Gaelic Irish, dandelion is called lus Bhríd (Brigid’s plant) or Bearnán Bríd (indented one of Brigid) where “lus” is the Irish equivalent of the English “wort,” or “plant.”[1] To this day, dandelion roots and leaves are used widely in teas, and the leaves are considered by many to be a delicacy in salads.

Rough-and-tough former soldier Gristle favors chicory, another flower from the family  compositae. Our pioneer fathers drank a coffee-like beverage made from the tuberous roots of these hardy plants. Even in my rough “pioneer” yard out here in central Texas, chicory grows wild in sunny, gravely alkaline soil in patches throughout my yard.

Chicory flowers, a kind of pale purple or lilac, nod in exquisite greeting to the coolness of early morning. But their roots are anything but exquisite. Tough and stout, they give a bitter yet rich flavor when boiled or ground and steeped, so that they make a coffee substitute when there is no Starbucks around.

chic 220

Chicory is distinctive for its lilac-colored petals and for the savory-to-bitter flavor of its roots.

One of the recently discovered ingredients in chicory is inulin, a complex of sugar that is high in fiber and that has several beneficial medicinal properties, especially for treatment of diabetes and for weight control. But Gristle drinks it for its sweet-bitter edge that he’s grown almost addicted to over the years. In fact, his companion Wynn gives him a hard time over his “herb,” which the young man claims to put hairs on his friend’s knuckles.

In Fire & Silk, the young woman Mariana tries to mend the bruised and twisted limbs of Flann, who has fallen into a deer blind. Looking around the boglands, she finds feverfew and fennel, both of which grow throughout the northern stretches of modern Co. Donegal (then Tyr Connell) where she has found herself.

fennel 280

Daisy-like with feathery leaves, fennel has many beneficial properties, especially its ability to reduce both pain and fever. Attribution: Photo taken by Carsten Niehaus

The fennel, thankfully, was well past its bloom, and hundreds of seed capsules were loose. She shook the bunch onto her woolen blanket, releasing the seeds. Next, she stripped leaves from the fever weed. She poured water from her wineskin into her own metal cup and threw in as many fennel seeds as she imagined would make a strong poultice. She found Flann’s cup among his supplies and brought it to the fire, filling it, too, with water. Before the concoction became too strong, she poured part of it into the second cup. And then she added the stripped leaves. This second cup would be his wildwood tea.

feverfew 280

Feverfew, as its name suggests, is an anti-inflammatory that can bring a fever under control quickly.

Another interesting plant used throughout my novels–indeed throughout most of Europe  to this day–is the bark and leaves of the willow, salix. Scientists have found that the main ingredient of willow bark is salicylic acid—yes, the main ingredient in aspirin.

A white willow tea, or a poultice  made from the steeped parts of the willow, would have soothed fevers, cured headaches, and dulled toothaches . . . if the patient could tolerate the nasty flavor.

One of the healing combinations that I invent for my books comes from an old idea, the use of gruits. In beer making, as we know, hops lend the bitter yet delicious flavor that makes beer such a distinctive and desirable beverage. But in those climes where hops do not grow, ingenious beer-makers have come up with any number of substitutes for them. Such combinations are called “gruits.”

wh willow 218

White willow–our ancestors’ eqivalent to aspirin.

Trying to find a palliative for Owen Sweeney MacNeill, Caylith comes up with an individualized potion, or gruit, for him. She uses part of the sacred hawthorns that grew near his sacred clootie well, and other plants such as heathers that were native to his homestead at Limavady. The resulting mix really does act as almost a narcotic for the ailing Owen. It also has the astonishing side effect, as Caylith discovers, of being an aphrodisiac.

Following is a list of additional plants that could have been readily gathered in Caylith’s northern Ireland: [2]

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Cat’s Claw – (Uncaria tomentosa)

Oregano – (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum)

Rosemary – (Rosmarinus officinalis)r:mary 80

Thyme – (Thymus vulgaris)

Yellow Dock – (Rumex crispus)

Wood Betony – (Pedicularis canadensis)

Passion Flower – (Passiflora incarnata)

Saffron – (Crocus sativus)saffron 80

Wild Lettuce – (Lactuca virosa)

Tumeric – (Curcuma longa)

Herbs that are helpful in pain treatment by gradually restoring the proper function of the body and increasing health and vitality:

Echinacea – (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea)echinacea 370

Burdock – (Arctium lappa)

Skullcap – (Scultellaria laterifolia)

Lobelia – (Lobelia inflata)

Valerian Root - (Valeriana Officinalis)

oat 170Oats – (Avena sativa)

Herbs that are are used externally for pain relief

Peppermint – (Mentha piperita L.)

Lavender – (Lavendula officinalis)

[1] Noted in “Plants in Folklore,” part of a series by folklorist Eugene Daly in the Ireland weekly magazine Ireland’s Own, summer  2012. With special thanks to my friend Paul McDermott who sent me  this article.

[2] This list, and the photo/art of the fennel and feverfew, are taken from “The Herbal Resource,” www/herbal-supplement-resource.com

Don’t miss Erin O’Quinn’s Dawn of Ireland writing, including the MM Iron Warrior series.

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23 thoughts on “Healing herbs and plants in Old World Ireland

  1. Erin,
    I take my hat off to you for the meticulous and painstaking research you’ve done to prepare this article!
    I recently completed the First Draft of a mediaeval ‘whodunnit’ in which the Central Character is a [female] Healer, and I did a lot of research along similar lines (though I was concentrating on plants native to Yorkshire & Lancashire, N. England).
    Coincidence: a BBC TV series which ended this week was based (very loosely!) on Merlin & Arthur. The final episode had Merlin searching desperately for certain herbs & plants to try and heal Arthur. Feverfew was one he mentioned: another was (I think) ‘scragwort’ or something similar, but I suspect THAT one was a fictitious name! LOL
    Regards
    Paul

  2. Hi, Paul! I’ve missed you. Did you see your name up there somewhere in the text? I’m indebted to you for sending that great article from the Irish magazine. You have such intellectual curiosity. I’m intrigued by your latest work in progress. Another friend of mine, Lindsay Townsend (also a Brit), has a story out about a medieval woman who’s kind of a Miss Marple. And Scragwort–ah, yes, that’s another pen name of mine…. :-D

    Go raibh maith agat a mo chara, slán, Erin

  3. Star of Bethlehem–your road lily. A beautiful delicate plant. Also chicory is always added to coffee in New Orleans. I think chicory grows everywhere in this country–seems to thrive on car exhaust. I didn’t know “wort” meant plant–that explains a lot! Thanks, Erin. And Happy New Year. Meredith

  4. Hi, Ms M, I’m happy to see you here. The road lily really came to me while writing…It’s not exactly the Star of Bethlehem, but similar, with an exquisite bouquet and long, strappy stems. There are hundreds of individual specimens in the great family of lilies, and I like almost all of ‘em.

    Chicory…I’ve never had it, even though I could go out to my yard and dig up a plant and grind the root. I let my dour armsman Gristle be my taster.

    Happy new year to you too, my friend. I hope yours is full of tremendous success in your career and in every other way too. :-)

  5. What a lovely blog! I can see I’ll be spending a lot of time indulging in my love of Celtic lore! :)
    (BTW, at my house, we love dandelions and chicory. The former are called Tenacious Ds around here.)

    • Hello, Faith, and welcome to the Gaelic Spirit. I’m so glad you enjoyed your visit. I guess I’d call dandelions “Deep Ds,” for those taproots! One of these days, describe for me the taste of chicory. Gristle is really addicted to it, and I have one more WARRIOR novel in my brain. Griss must have his herb. ;)

  6. Erin, this page is going straight into my ‘writing research’ folder. What a WONDERFUL wealth of information! It’s almost a pity I don’t have humans characters on whom to use some of this stuff, but Meg does, at least for the time being, and you’re the perfect go-to for anything we need, it seems! What a great blog! Thank you so much for posting it!

  7. Hey, young lady, I’m pleased that you like it. If you have some questions that could be answered on a blog, Celtic/Gaelic themed, let me know. Ya never know when a question might rouse me to do a whole blog. Thanks for coming by, and thanks for the vote of confidence. :-D

  8. Great post, Erin – I’ve always been interested in healing plants and did a short article years ago. Also have a copy of Culpepper’s famous Complete Herbal book. Look forward to your new series!

    • Hey there, Romy, so good to see you! I’d love to receive a copy of your article. I’d take your info and Kemberlee’s too, and write a short follow-up to this post. Anyone else with a tidbit or two about Celtic (especially Ireland) herbs, leave a little info in the comments for me.

      Happy new year. I wish you tremendous success and joy.

  9. A great article with an interesting collection of ancient Irish herbs. There are hundreds of Irish wildflowers and wild herbs that go back in history, but you’ve got a great collection here which were most popular.

    If I can add one more to your list that was and is very important . . . plantago, aka ribwort, aka plantain (plantago lanceolata). It dates back to at least Neolithic times when it was used as a sign of fertile grounds. Farmers grazed their cattle where plantago grew abundantly.

    It has long been used, probably also since Neolithic times, to make teas. It was used to help with stomach ailments, and in modern day, it’s used to help control blood sugar and cholesterol.

    Plantago is one of the nine plants invoked in the Nine Herbs Charm that was recorded in the 10th century by pagan Anglo-Saxons. The nine herbs in the charm were mugwort (not to be confused with St John’s Wort which is also an ancient healing plant in Ireland), cockspur grass (aka betony), lamb’s cress (aka hairy bittercress), plantago, chamomile (aka mayweed), nettle, crab-apple, thyme, and fennel, all of which still grow abundantly in the Irish countryside.

    Regarding plantago, in the most recent times, boys play a game of soldiers, using long stalks of plantago as swords. The first boy to knock the head off the other boy’s stalk wins. Boys could play for hours, as long as the stalks were plentiful. And knocking the heads off helps spread seeds for the next season. My husband played this growing up. And I must admit, in the spring when the stalks are up and strong, we’ve been known to battle each other ;-)

    http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/Plants/english%20plantain/plantago_lanceolata.jpg

    • Thanks for visiting, Kemberlee. The information about plantain is really interesting. I especially like the “botany of desire” implication that those plantagos became play weapons, “allowing” children to spread their seeds in the spring.

      I know that I could have printed up a list of hundreds of herbs and folk medicines. Alas, I had to keep my list short and sweet…and in some cases, pretty sour too.

      • I know what you mean. There are hundreds of wild herbs and flowers around Ireland that still grow. Only most people have lost touch with using them. However, wild nettle soup is still considered a healing plant and it’s even making its way onto gourmet tables in the culinary world.

        When we lived on our property, from Spring to Autumn (when we had fine weather) we’d walk the boundary with out wild flower and plant guides to see what’s what. There were huge swaths of land that looked like herb gardens. Along the stream in particular. One of my favorites is speedwell. In olden times, it was used as an expectorant as a tea, as well as help alleviate asthma and allergies. It looks like mint but isn’t, but mint also has it’s own healing properties and as a flavoring for other teas.

        That’s probably the only thing I miss about that property . . . the wildlife, flora and fauna. The house, not so much ;-)

    • Hi, my friend…Rosemary is my fave too! The aroma, they say, can calm the nerves. Whenever I feel stressed, I rub a few leaves together and inhale away till I feel good again. I also keep a few herb books close by when I’m writing. Take care, and happy holidays!

    • Hi, Erin!
      Sticking my nose in again, not so much following Kelley’s comment but because of the time of year …
      To the Druids, Mistletoe was a sacred plant. Depending on who you talk to there are still some who claim it has aphrodisiac properties while others will insist it’s a deadly Poison!

      All I can say is, my cats have been fascinated with its [?? smell ?? taste ?? presence ??] in the house this past fortnight, and as I write yet ANOTHER ‘running battle’ for possession of one of the last remaining branches is ongoing!

      Slan,
      Paul

  10. Funny!!! One of my cats reacts to rosemary as though it was catnip…she rubs her nose in it and then proceeds to roll her body and eyes too, acting quite drunk for awhile. I knew about the mistletoe. Out here in central Texas the mistletoe really cripples the oak trees, leaving them bare and ugly. The druids in all my books get short shrift, as I think you may remember from Caylith’s run-in with them at the mead hall of the high king. (STORM MAKER) They come back a few more times to wreak some havoc also, and she wreaks it right back. :-D

    A very happy new year to you, a mo chara. Take care of yourself! Slán, Erin

    • … and a propos of nothing at all … my daughter’s (adult, female) cat seems to like Bailey’s Irish Cream licqueur: she licked clean a couple of glasses left over after our New Year party and was “hangover grumpy” all day” :)
      Paul

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